A life in writing
Writing Home. Polly Devlin. Pimpernel Press; 224pp; £10.99pb; 21cm; 978910258330.
Overflowing with wit and love of language
We are in a golden age of essay writing in Ireland—an opportune moment for a collection of Polly Devlin’s writings to be published. Writing Home, which reads like a loosely structured memoir, consists of pieces spanning Devlin’s extraordinarily varied life and career—the name-only index is like a who’s who of twentieth-century popular culture.
Roughly one third of the pieces were originally published in The Gloss, one third in Image and the remainder in publications including Vogue and A Year in the Life of an English Meadow, a book she co-wrote with her husband. The timespan over which they were written, as well as the intended readership of the periodicals, undoubtedly influence the tone of the pieces, but nothing contained herein should be dismissed as frivolous. Devlin is a highly accomplished writer; she teaches creative non-fiction at Columbia University, has been a judge for the Booker Prize, The Irish Times Literary Award, and the Pushkin Prize. In 1992 she was awarded an OBE for services to literature. As Joan Bakewell notes in her introduction, Writing Home is ‘a totally surprising array of occasions and insights overflowing with Devlin’s wit and love of language’. It is noteworthy that the topics she returns to repeatedly over the decades pre-empt those of many newer voices—from the challenges facing female writers as they juggle parenthood with ambitions, to her experience of childhood sexual abuse, to safeguarding natural farming practices.
Devlin was born and reared in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone, and has never lost her fierce resentment of the treatment of the Catholic population there. Winning a competition in Vogue lead to a job in the magazine’s London offices and then New York, interviewing the most celebrated artists of the 1960s; not only, as she archly claims, ‘the ones I wanted to sleep with’. There are incisive portraits of figures such as Jean Rhys, Diana Vreeland and Yoko Ono. Following marriage to Andy Garnett, she found herself moving to deepest Gloucestershire with her husband and three adored daughters, but still ‘in a froth of rage about being a baby mother’.
Whatever the subject, Devlin’s love of language and literature is evident. Her work is peppered with well-chosen quotes from and references to other writers, and she has a particular grá for the vernacular she was brought up with.
Underpinning the collection are the themes of endurance and of love. ‘All my life I have been restless, seeking somewhere else about to be, moving from place to place. But I embrace life and joy and love – I must, otherwise the perpetrator is forever the victor. You can’t undo damage, but you can assuage it. As ever, I go back to poetry. … Seamus Heaney’s wisdom – “The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life” – has supplied me with courage and hope and order.’ This book is a delight.
Amanda Bell is a writer, editor and indexer. Her poetry collection, First the Feathers, was shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award.
Writing Home is available in print and digital online.